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Dealing With Problem Co-workers

Dealing With Problem Coworkers

— Photo by Marcus Lyon/Getty Images

En español | As if normal stress on the job weren't enough, we often have to deal with troublesome co-workers and bosses.

A recent survey by the global staffing firm Robert Half International found that about one-third of workers have to routinely deal with rude and unprofessional colleagues.

Personally, I'm shocked that figure isn't higher. For all the talk about organizational teamwork and collaboration, complaints about difficult people at work routinely dominate conversations at home and at the watercooler.

Sometimes these troublesome people are just an irritation and distraction; however, if the behavior is extreme and chronically upsetting, it can actually interfere with your ability to do your work well. Sometimes the behavior can even cause people to quit their jobs to escape the stress and aggravation. This is especially true if the troublesome person is the boss. You've encountered these people:

  • The Whiner
  • The Interrupter
  • The Gossip
  • The Know-It-All
  • The Slacker
  • The Brown-Noser

So what can you do? Don't let yourself be a victim of co-workers' and colleagues' damaging behavior. Understand and confront the situation with professionalism and integrity. You can tolerate the behavior or do something about it.

Consider these quick fixes for the common problem personas:

Have a Plan of Action

Research has confirmed that people identified as "troublesome" by co-workers are seldom fully aware of the consequences of their behaviors. Now there's a surprise! It's much easier to believe that these people are deliberately being disruptive and unpleasant.

Professor Mitchell Kusy of Antioch University interviewed 500 managers and supervisors who had been identified as "troublesome" by their subordinates. With a few exceptions, these 500 bosses were surprised, and sometimes actually shocked, to learn of the workers' opinions.

Julie Jansen, author of You Want Me to Work With Who?, confirms these general findings. So if we start with the premise that "Generally, troublesome people aren't fully aware of their effect on others," we can lay out a plan of action for dealing with them.

An effective plan of action includes these steps:

1. Define the Situation: Very specifically describe the problematic behavior to yourself. Is it directed at you only, or at a group of people? How is the behavior affecting you and your work? Is it important enough to do something about?

2. Are You Contributing? Objectively and honestly ask yourself if you're contributing to the troublesome situation with your reactions and behaviors. Are you really an "innocent bystander," or could you be part of the problem? You may want to ask the opinion of a trusted and objective co-worker.

3. Don't Personalize: It's only natural to respond in an emotional and personal fashion to a troublesome person. However, don't make matters worse by personalizing the behavior as an insult or attack on you.

4. Reflect and Try to Understand: It may be helpful if you learned more about the bothersome co-worker's personal and work situation. His behavior could feel a little less troubling if you understood more about his situation and perspective.

5. Be Dignified and Professional: Regardless of how you intend to respond to the troublesome person, be courteous, sincere, forthright, dignified, and professional. Get your emotions under control, and focus on improving work relationships and your performance.

6. Direct Confrontation: Schedule time with the troublesome co-worker. Politely and discreetly share with him or her what you are experiencing and feeling. Give the colleague a chance to absorb your comments. Make it clear you want only to improve your working relationship. Be prepared for some defensiveness, and be prepared to own up to your contribution to any difficulties. The keys here are sincerity and honesty.

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